Free Syrian Army are seen through a hole in a wall in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 21.

What Obama must do for Syria peace talks

As he prepares for peace talks on Syria planned for November, President Obama can better help unite the anti-Assad, pro-freedom opposition with a clear vision of what the US supports.

Just two months ago, President Obama almost launched a unilateral military attack on Syria to prevent another use of sarin gas on civilians. His goal was to uphold a “global norm” against such weapons. The threat was real enough to convince Syria to start dismantling its chemical stockpiles under international supervision.

Now the United States is working with other nations to hold talks Nov. 22 in Geneva aiming at ending the war in Syria. But what norm, or overarching vision, will Mr. Obama be seeking in these negotiations?

The answer is important for the talks to succeed. Whatever the US wants in Geneva, it will be up against two clear visions competing in Syria’s civil war. Bashar al-Assad’s regime represents the status quo of a ruthless dictatorship. Another vision comes from the increasingly powerful rebel groups associated with Al Qaeda that want to return the Middle East, not only Syria, to a 10th-century-style Islamic caliphate.

As for a third vision, most of the other rebels, many of whom originated from the Arab Spring protests for democracy, are now scattered in their aims or at least oppose each other for leadership of the opposition.

What’s more, much of their support comes from two anti-democratic countries, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Another major supporter, Turkey, is slowly slipping toward one-party rule.

Obama himself, after declaring support for democracy worldwide in 2009, has backed off that value-driven foreign policy. Last month at the United Nations, he spoke mainly of pursuing US interests, such as defending allies and protecting oil supplies.

His secretary of State, John Kerry, has praised the regime of Mr. Assad for cooperating in ridding Syria of toxic-gas weapons. And while the US still wants Assad to go, it also seeks an orderly transition with the Assad-era institutions left in place.

Mr. Kerry does speak of the need for a “diverse and pluralistic and well-represented” Syria that is also secular (meaning non-jihadist). But he will need to be more forceful in pushing that idealism. Obama almost went to war over one global norm (nonproliferation). He can at least stand strong in demanding a democratic solution for Syria.

The best way for the US to do that is devote more resources to unifying the non-Islamic opposition, which has seen further splits in recent weeks between rebel fighters within Syria and leading figures outside the country. Simply getting most of the opposition to the negotiating table will be a major victory for the US.

A new report by the International Crisis Group warns that Western and Arab powers are contributing to Syria’s woes with their “own mixed signals, independent agendas and poor coordination.” The US can end that scattered approach with a grander vision for Syria, one that looks ahead to democracy rather than a return to autocracy or the fundamentalist theocracy of Al Qaeda.

More civilians have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in 2011 – more than 100,000 – than in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion. Obama helped end the US military role in Iraq. Now he can show similar leadership for Syria by helping the pro-US opposition unite around the goal of a free and democratic Syria. US resolve may be more potent than any US weapons as many nations prepare for next month’s peace talks.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to What Obama must do for Syria peace talks
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today